• The Challenge Before the Labour Party: An Interview with Jon Trickett

  • Von Stelios Foteinopoulos | 19 Apr 19
  • Stelios Foteinopoulos: Before beginning our conversation, I would like to thank you for agreeing to this interview at a very busy time for Britain’s political scene. It has been more than three years since a small number of MPs gathered on Westminster’s terrace decided that Jeremy Corbyn should run for the leadership of the Labour Party. Today, Labour is the largest party in Western Europe and one of the largest in the world. Given social democracy’s current deficiencies due to its liberal economic integration and the reduction of its electorate across Europe, what did the Labour Party do and how did it succeed on such a scale?

    Jon Trickett: This goes back to the 1997 Labour government – from 1997 to 2010. By the time we got to the 2005 election, it became clear to me that large numbers of voters were no longer voting Labour. But those Labour abstentionists hadn’t yet been converted into pro-Conservative voters. And I wrote a series of articles and critical interventions talking about ‘Labour’s missing millions’ – the missing voters. It did seem to me that unless we shifted our politics and our economics, we might lose the next election, if the Tories managed to reorganise themselves, make themselves more attractive. By the time of the following election in 2010 we had lost five million voters compared to 1970. And the question is, how did that happen. I suppose, to a degree, all governments lose support over time. But it did seem to me at that time that the orientation of that Labour government towards what we call the ‘Thatcherite settlement’ led to disaffection amongst a significant part of our political base. They moved away from us. Now, this has clearly happened throughout Europe wherever a left-of-centre party in government embraced what we might call neoliberal politics and economics – then its electoral base atrophies.
       And when you reflect on it, it could hardly be anything other than that. Because if you have a party whose electoral base largely is what you might call the popular classes, (manual workers, middle-income earners, people on wages and salaries) – if the policies are not working for the electoral base – then clearly what will happen is that the party will suffer. In some countries the collapse in support has been very, very significant. I felt at the time and I said it in 2005 – so I’m not saying it now in retrospect – that the party needed to reorient fast, change its language, its vocabulary, as well as its policies and its practice in government.
       However, we were caught by a whirlwind: the global financial crash in 2008. And the longer-term atrophy combined with the crisis accounts for the 2010 electoral collapse. What then happened is that we had a period of transition under Ed Miliband’s leadership. He did not completely manage to break with what we would come to call austerity. We might say austerity is a further twist of the neoliberal knife. Certainly, all of the characteristics of neoliberalism are intensified in a period of austerity.
       And therefore it seems to me now looking back that it wasn’t possible for that sort of bridging moment of those years (the Miliband leadership years) to lead to a full recovery from the damage that had previously been done.
       So, when we got to the defeat in 2015 it was clear that a massive reorientation, a new paradigm, was required. And that’s what Jeremy has delivered.
       Now, I always had felt that this whole epoch was marked by a kind of insurgent feeling, a sense of anger and alienation amongst those people whose vote we needed. And if we could harness it, it could lead to the renaissance of the party on a new basis. And I think that is what has happened.

    SF: Soon after the first leadership contest, Jeremy Corbyn and other longstanding left-Labour MPs, including you of course, understood that a party away from the masses is a party without a historic mission. But for that reconnect to happen old party structures have to be replaced with new ones, more democratic, more transparent, and more accountable to the membership. So, as you already know, a liberal government, when elected, will have to take a lot of decisions every day. Unlike the rule in elite politics, which completely ignores popular debates and opinions, a Labour government will have to find a way to incorporate the membership into a broad participatory decision-making process. Is such a thing possible? And if yes, how can it work?

    JT: Well, the first thing is, we’ve now got, as you said, the largest party in Western Europe, one of the largest in the world. And one of our tasks is to find new ways of relating to that mass membership, and turning that mass membership outwards, so that it begins to build strong links with all the communities that make up our country. And it’s clear to me that apart from, if you like, the theoretical political economy of our party, our policy offer and intellectual framework, there also have to be new organisational paradigms as well.
       Because the Zeitgeist is no longer that of the nineteenth-century vertical, hierarchic structures of the kind we saw in many social democratic parties. We inherited them from the latter decades of the nineteenth century and the first decade or two of the twentieth century; they no longer work. So, we’re trying to think through and implement changes to the way in which our party functions, and engage with the membership, but without throwing away those elements of the party which are good – and at the same time to rethink how we connect to people in the neighbourhoods as well as in the place of work. And that is an ongoing process. But for me, this structural, cultural change in the party, the formation of the party, is as important, or almost as important, as the transformation of our political positions. And clearly, when we’re in government there will be further work to do because so far I’ve only spoken about the relationship of the party to the wider population.
       But there is then another question, a formidably difficult one, of what you do when you enter office, considering that the state structure is also a hierarchy and to a large extent alienating for so many members, for so many citizens. So trying to find new ways of structuring the state itself and changing its culture is a very big challenge. I think we can also look elsewhere, but quite a lot of it will have to be done by ourselves and I’m thinking very hard about this. One of the ideas we have is that of a citizen-led constitutional convention to begin to rethink how people want their communities to be managed, and as far as possible putting power back into local communities – or rather putting power in local communities maybe for the first time – power to make decisions about their own lives. At the end of the day this comes out to the central political question for the left: of agency.
       First of all, is the party structure that we inherited an agency which is capable of bringing about change? I say only partly, unless we change it. Secondly, how do we put agency back into the hands of the citizens in new collective forms. So, this question of agency, it seems to me, is really at the heart of what we need to think about.

    SF: The Labour Party, unlike the rest of the social democratic parties, has come to the analysis that the working class should be the main driving force of social change and that neoliberalism is not transformable. In this framework, do you think that the European Union, whose institutional and social structure is the European treaties, can be transformed or not? And why?

    JT: Here is a very complex set of questions. Let’s be clear. The present conjuncture in Britain is one where the majority of the people came to the conclusion that the Tories’ offer of a mild form of reformed European Union wasn’t sufficiently convincing for us to stay. Labour offered a much bigger vision of reform. We argue that because of the fact that a very substantial part of our country’s trade is within the European Union it will be extremely difficult to disentangle the economic links in the supply chains which have been constructed. But on the other hand, we felt that the way in which the European Union was working was deeply problematic in a number of ways. But we are an international party, an internationalist party. We thought that the thing to do was to lay before the public a big reform agenda. That wasn’t what the public wanted and the electorate resolved that we should leave the EU. So we’re now trying, in so far as it is possible, to offer a way out of the European Union, following the indications given by the people, one which doesn’t do economic damage and which allows us to build a different, a socially more just country. As to the question of whether or not the European Union itself is capable of being reformed, only praxis can demonstrate whether that is the case or not. But the reforms we wanted were deep-rooted change. And, I think, a single country cannot deliver this. So, we are looking towards alliances elsewhere in Europe with likeminded social and political movements. At present, as you know, there are debates in the House, which have been going on for several days, to define the way in which the country is going. So in a sense you are catching us in the middle of a complex, convoluted parliamentary process.

    SF: Yes, I fully understand. To my mind, the European left in general finds itself in a double strategic stalemate. On the one hand, there are those who claim that ‘Lexit’ is the only way to pave the way for progressive reforms and impose national financial policies. And on the other hand, there are those who claim that the European Union’s direction depends on the general balance of power and that therefore the fundamental goal of the left should be to create progressive coalitions within the European framework. Which one of those two projects do you think is the appropriate strategy for Labour?

    JT: In the midst of these complex manoeuvres at the moment I don’t want to go any further into my personal view on this because I’m a member of a collective leadership. We have our internal discussions and then try to speak with a single voice. I will say though, in response to the general question, that there really are two hugely contesting views of what kind of Europe we want to create and want to inhabit. Do we want a Europe of internationalism, solidarity, progress, economic intervention when necessary, an end to economic liberalism, the use of state aid when necessary, a democratic Europe where it is possible to change direction if that’s what the peoples of Europe want, and looking beyond the European boundaries to the rest of the world. On the one hand, that represents a left project of a major type. I am not sure that this is being properly articulated by the left across Europe or that the left has got a shared vision of this.
       On the other hand, there’s a completely different vision of Europe, a contending vision, which is dominant at the moment, of a Europe that is driving working people into lower and lower standards, a kind of race into the gutter, which is class-ridden, dominated by corporate policies, rather than a kind of people’s or social Europe. It is the kind of debate which needs to be had.
       I know where we stand and we can work out our tactics and strategies. It does seem to me – and I’ve been doing quite a bit of work speaking to other left-wing leaders in the rest of Europe – that there is not yet a consensus as to what our vision of a social Europe would be. And that, I think, is lamentable. It would be better if we had a common view given that capital itself has gone global while labour movements tend to still be captured in national boundaries. That, I think, is a really important matter, and I know that Transform is active in promoting debate on this matter.

    SF: Yes. transform!europe participated in this year’s The World Transformed events in Liverpool, co-organising two sessions on the cooperation between radical left forces in Europe, in which the Labour Party can play a major role. What is your view of this prospect?

    JT: Well, as I’ve just said, it seems to me that this is almost the central task at the moment, because democratic politics still tends to be contained within national boundaries. This will clearly continue in the foreseeable future. But there is cooperation being organised, for example by transform! europe. I am speaking with all such people, as is Jeremy and the rest of the Labour party leadership. I feel there is much more to be done. The politicians need to be meeting more frequently, it seems to me, to try and work out a way out of the mess created by so many parties to the left of centre, with their managerial, technocratic approach. In the conversations I’ve had, there is a lot of common ground around fighting back against austerity and delivering a more democratic framework, progressive internationalism, and so on and so forth. Some of the work on this is being done by theoreticians, academics, and intellectuals. But we – practical politicians and the labour movement, the trade unions – have to be thinking about this. A lot of the work has been sporadic, partial and limited by national cultural differences, and it needs to be pulled together.

    SF: Now, let me take you back to the governance question. A future Labour government will have to function against pressures from the old state structures, the dominant ideological system of the UK, and mainly the financial markets. Basically, that means that the capitalist state, acting like a human body, will activate its natural defences as soon as the virus, which is the Labour government in this case, infects it. I am aware that you and other people are working on a number of scenarios. For instance, last month the New York Times published stories of wealthy Britons who are already moving or preparing to move their money offshore in fear of a government under Jeremy Corbyn. The question of capital controls is again on the table. Given the existing power structures in the UK, how is Labour going to make its strategy work and deliver results within this framework. Are there any plans B, plans C, plans D?

    JT: I think on the whole that this work is being done by John McDonnell, our shadow Chancellor, and maybe you should have an interview with him. I think ‘virus’ is too strong a word and I don’t accept it. But in general terms it’s possible there will be what we might call ‘headwinds’ against the incoming Labour government. There always have been headwinds against every incoming Labour government. The best answer is for us to tell the public, before any election, exactly how we intend to proceed, that our plans are public, that they are authoritative, and that they are credible. I think the idea of having a secret plan isn’t going to work. You have to have the proper understanding amongst the millions of people, ‘the many’, of what we intend to achieve. And we have to show in advance what material benefits they are going to get as well as the way in which we’ll bring about national renewal. If our policies are understood in advance, and if there are millions of people who vote for the radical transformative change which we’re interested in, then, we think, to a degree that is the answer. It may be the case that a handful of people are trying to take provocative actions. But, John McDonnell has been speaking to people in the City and elsewhere. He tells me he’s getting a decent reaction; they understand what we’re trying to do. And, he’s going to continue doing all that work.

    SF: The possibility of state transformation, as you know very well, is an old debate within the left. Is this a viable strategy for the British left today, if one takes into account that the United Kingdom is not a small peripheral country but a country with strong and stable power structures and a strong position in the international division of labour?

    JT: You are absolutely right. Britain is one of the wealthiest countries. Democracy is very deeply ingrained in the national culture – which doesn’t mean we can be complacent – and our civil society is very strong and stable. I think all of that is important in calculating the balance of forces. I do believe – partly in response to your previous question – that there has been a kind of corporate coup against democracy at the top of the British state, that too many of the instruments of the state have been subject to the will of the most powerful corporations and a handful of the wealthiest people in our society. And that cannot be allowed to continue. That is the reverse of what we want to create. We have at the moment a society which is run for the few often against the interest of the many. And we intend to reverse that direction. So, there will be some institutional changes. And I will give you a small but quite interesting example: the debates about fracking. Essentially, there have been a great number of ministerial meetings with representatives of the part of the capitalist class that is interested in fracking. By contrast, they’ve had only about a dozen meetings with community groups and only three meetings with the trade unions. I think I am right in saying that there have been well over 130 ministerial meetings with corporate interests. What then happens is that fracking proceeds, and it’s damaging the interests of communities all over the country wherever it’s happening, while at the same time it’s enriching a very small group of powerful corporations. Now that is a small example of what you might call corporate capture of government in the state. We will have to take measures straightaway to change the way in which lobbying works. And in the United Kingdom we have a lobbying act, which actually frees up commercial lobbying, but then it puts a deep freeze on community groups because of the way in which the regulation works. We will have to do the reverse up by empowering civil society and local communities. Because at the moment we have this ‘voice and choice’ question’ Who has voice and who has choice?’ Surely in an advanced democracy, we need to create a situation where the many rule, not the few.

    SF: So, it’s a broader question, isn’t it?

    JT: Yes, it is. Right across all of our state structures it is true to say that there is really an elite class of people dominating most decisions. Almost every political institution is affected in one way or another.

    SF: And that takes me to the final question. Elite-driven politics works hand in hand with the assertion that markets are self-regulated and that people are by nature egocentric and tend to optimise their personal position without common values, and so on. Contrary to what is happening in a large number of European countries, the Labour Party shows that working people, severely hit by the crisis, instead of turning to nationalism and to misanthropic antisocial views, can actually become a creative force that renews collective ideas and reintroduces the concept of public interest into the agenda. How can this narrative inspire the new generation and influence party structures including the state?

    JT: Well, I think you are right in the premise of your question. Actually there are many contending views on the nature of humanity itself. I suppose that you can reduce it eventually to two value systems. One around fear and the other around hope. And fear often triumphs. But fear is a weapon in the hands of those people who themselves are afraid of popular political change because they want to protect their privileges. And of course, the few people who benefit from the current arrangements will always use fear, fear of change, as a way of trying to prevent the outburst of optimism that I believe lies at the heart of the human condition. And the sense that human beings are social in character, rather than private individuals competing with one another as in a Hobbesian world, is right at the core of the different value systems. We believe in cooperation, we believe in enlightenment, we believe in optimism and hope. And everywhere you look, in every community I represent – and, remember, I represent some of the poorest communities – you experience people showing that there are ways of living their lives that are different from the ones which the elite would have us believe are the only ones possible.
       I represent 23 villages, and in every village there are people doing things for the good of the community, for the good of humanity, reaching out and helping others in mutual chains of human support. And so everywhere I look what I see is a new society waiting to be born. So, it’s there, it’s waiting, it just needs the agency to deliver it. So, I suppose I will finish with the old phrase now, but it’s an apt one, from Gramsci: everywhere you look there are structures which are dying, or decaying, and losing credibility, and everywhere you look there are human beings.

    SF: … waiting to be born

    JT: who are full of hope. And that, I think, is what we have to build on.

    8 December 2018